CHAIN-MAIL TROUSERS, PREGAME PYROTECHNICS, THE MORE-THAN-OCCASIONAL BROKEN BONE ... WELCOME TO THE RUGBY WORLD CUP, WHICH BROUGHT THE GAME TO ITS ANCESTRAL HOME AND SHOWCASED THE PLANET'S TOUGHEST ATHLETES AND MOST COLORFUL FANS
This is an article from the Nov. 2, 2015 issue
AT FIRST GLANCE the Rugby World Cup is the greatest celebration of national stereotypes since It's a Small World opened at Disneyland. Italian fans came dressed as pizza slices, Welshmen wore sheep's clothing, Aussies arrived in striped prison jumpsuits, and every French fan was reduced to a beret and a baguette. Step up to a stainless-steel urinal trough at a stadium in England or Wales over the last six weeks, and you saw English knights dropping chain-mail trousers, Tonga supporters parting grass skirts and kilted Scotsmen fartin' through tartan.
When Canada played Italy during the group stages of the tournament, a man in a bear costume—presumably standing in for the whole of Canada—ran onto the pitch at Elland Road stadium in Leeds and was promptly tackled by security guards. His head rolled but was quickly retrieved, and the man was allowed, for dignity's sake, to wear the bear's head when frog-marched off to detention, a faraway look in his unblinkable eyes.
Even the players play dress-up. Two years ago this Halloween week, a member of the Scottish national team, Ryan Wilson, walked into a fast-food restaurant in Glasgow at 2 a.m. dressed as Batman. When he attacked a man inside Barbeque Kings, a second player—Ally Mclay, dressed as Tweedledee—confronted Wilson with the now famous phrase, "Leave it, Batman." Wilson/Batman then assaulted Mclay/Tweedledee in front of various witnesses, among them a minion from Despicable Me and a giant red crayon.
Of all the stereotypes offered at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the most persistent are attached to the players themselves, most of whom are presumed by much of the world to be hard-drinking hard men playing through pain for national pride. You expected the Australians to play AC/DC's "Back in Black" at an ear-shattering volume during practice at London's Twickenham Stadium, while the team bus, festooned with wallabies, waited outside—and that's precisely what you got.
But if this Saturday's World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand at Twickenham reveals anything, it will be national character more than these national caricatures. New Zealand, the reigning World Cup champion, is the odds-on favorite to win the Webb Ellis Cup, and if the All Blacks are the only thing the world knows of New Zealand, well, they still make a fine national hood ornament. "The All Blacks," as Ireland international Mike Gibson once said, "are the national virility symbol."
The Haka, the All Blacks' pregame Maori war dance, remains a fearsome sight, though less so when performed by the happy drunks packed elbow-to-elbow inside The Eel Pie pub, a short walk from Twickenham Stadium, which is on Rugby Road, not far from the world's most famous rugby pub, The Cabbage Patch, itself a stone's throw from The William Webb Ellis, yet another rugby pub, named for the so-called inventor of rugby, whose rules were first codified just 90 miles north of here at Rugby School, in Rugby, England, a phrase—Rugby, England—that's been a redundancy throughout October.
Twickenham is ground zero of world rugby, its high street closed to traffic on match days, its front gardens given over to grilled meats, Cub Scouts painting New Zealand and Australian flags on faces, a lone bagpiper in a Slipknot shirt knocking out a stirring rendition of the theme from Star Wars, tips thrown into his upturned tam-o'-shanter.
And so it will go on Saturday, as fans walk that green mile to the stadium with equal parts joy and foreboding. To see the All Blacks doing the Haka inside Twickenham, and the flames shooting up from the sidelines like hellfire, and 82,000 fans counting down to kickoff—10, 9, 8, as if reading the final seconds on the doomsday clock—is to be seized by the sudden sense of impending apocalypse that precedes every World Cup rugby match.
English novelist Julian Barnes has written of le reveil mortel, the "wake-up call to mortality," those moments when you are abruptly reminded that you are destined to die. "My wake-up call frequently shrills at the start of a sports event on television," Barnes wrote, "especially, for some reason, during the Five (now Six) Nations rugby tournament."
Mercifully the bottled violence about to be unstoppered before these games is undercut by the crowd, whose costumes build a sense of conviviality among rival supporters, many of whom wear split scarves—featuring both teams—and split outfits: A bagpiper in a corked Australian outback hat, for instance, or a Wales jersey paired with a Japanese hachimaki bandana.
The entire rugby-playing world became fans of Japan when that latecomer to the sport stunned South Africa 34--32 in a group stage match on Sept. 19. It was the biggest upset in rugby history. So historic was this Miracle on Rice that the Brave Blossoms' victory over Samoa two games later was witnessed by 25 million people in Japan, hosts of the next World Cup, in 2019. That's 20% of the nation and the largest domestic audience ever to watch a rugby match on TV.
Between those wins against South Africa and Samoa, Japan lost to Scotland without winger Akihito Yamada. That's because Japan had followed its victory over the Springboks with a recovery swim in the sea off Brighton, where Yamada was stung on the foot by the poisonous spine of a weever fish. "It hurt like crazy," Yamada said. "I'm never going in the ocean again."
It was the first and last admission of physical pain during the entire tournament, which began on Sept. 18 with a field of 20 countries. As a chalked-up sandwich board outside one pub read, FOOTBALL IS 90 MINUTES OF PRETENDING YOU'RE HURT, RUGBY IS 80 MINUTES OF PRETENDING YOU'RE NOT.
That sign makes a fair point, as every single injury at the Rugby World Cup was described as a "knock" or a "niggle" or a nuisance. It seemed as if most of the Wales' roster was felled by serious injury during the World Cup, but the team advanced to the quarterfinals anyway. The players began to sound like Monty Python's Black Knight, protesting that every limb amputation was but a flesh wound.
After a group stage win over Fiji on Oct. 1, Wales forwards coach Robin McBryde said of two key players, "Dan Lydiate and Bradley Davies are a bit battered, but they are fine." McBryde, a former international hooker, was also the winner of Wales' Strongest Man Competition in 1992, so his pain tolerance may be higher than most, especially when you consider that the "fine" Lydiate needed a plate inserted into his left eye socket. "So he's fine now," said Wales head coach Warren Gatland, inevitably.
All of this is to say that the Rugby World Cup is not the more famous FIFA World Cup, and it is quite keen to make that distinction clear. No sport has inspired as many aphorisms as rugby, the best known of which goes, "Soccer is a gentleman's sport played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan's sport played by gentlemen." But there's also this one, spotted on a T-shirt at Twickenham: IF I WANT TO SPEND 90 MINUTES WATCHING MEN STRUGGLE TO SCORE, I'LL GO TO THE PUB.
Spoiler alert: That guy is going to the pub anyway. Indeed, he was standing in line at one of the stadium's many bars—The Sin Bin, maybe, or possibly The Third Half—where fans are given convenient cup holsters that allow them to carry away as many as six beers in each hand.
As if to underscore that this sport isn't that other sport, rugby fans are allowed to drink beer in their seats, a privilege not afforded to England's soccer supporters. As with most hard-earned rights—free speech and freedom of assembly come to mind—the right to drink in one's seat is exercised robustly and conspicuously at Twickers. At halftime of the Scotland-Australia quarterfinal, with the Bravehearts holding an improbable one-point lead that wouldn't last, the in-house emcee interviewed a kilted man in the front row, an exchange that was broadcast on the jumbotron to 77,110 spectators. "Can you keep it up in the second half?" the interviewer wanted to know.
"Are we talkin' about the rugby?" replied the man, as the emcee hastily pulled the microphone away.
Built in 1909 on the site of a former cabbage patch, Twickenham Stadium reached a pinnacle of perfection in 1974, when an Australian accountant named Michael O'Brien streaked onto the pitch at halftime of an England-France match. After disporting in the altogether for a bit, he was finally caught by three London policemen, one of whom—history records him as constable Bruce Perry—placed his bobby helmet over O'Brien's meat and two veg. An American photographer named Ian Bradshaw captured the moment for posterity. Even in captivity, O'Brien looked so proud—so smugly self-satisfied—that the helmet most likely would have remained in place even had Perry stopped holding it.
This year, in addition to the headless bear in Leeds, a South Africa supporter ran onto the pitch at Villa Park in Birmingham and tried to join a ruck in jeans and a Springboks shirt, but he was summarily taken down by Samoa tackler Vavao Afemai. "I don't know if he was drunk or just an idiot," said halfback Kahn Fotuali'i, unaware that these things are seldom an either-or proposition, and that pitch invaders are usually both at the same time.
THE SIGNS on the platform at the Twickenham train station welcomed the world with these words: TWICKENHAM—HOME OF ENGLAND RUGBY. "Not anymore," said a 10-year-old boy in a Scotland jersey, disembarking there with his dad and grandfather before the Scotland-Australia quarterfinal on Oct. 18. The boy posed for a photograph beneath the sign while making a loser's l on his forehead.
The host nation had long since crapped out of the Rugby World Cup in the group stages, just as England has done at the last cricket and soccer World Cups too, and is likely to do at the next Quidditch World Cup. Eclipsed in the sports they invented and exported, England fans either threw themselves behind another rugby team or longed for happier times.
En route to the quarterfinals at the last World Cup, in New Zealand in 2011, some England players enjoyed a night out in Queenstown, and photos posted to social media showed them posing with the human projectiles of a bar's "dwarf-tossing" spectacle. The bar manager assured the tabloids that England players behaved impeccably that night, defending the team with this memorable quote: "They were great lads, not throwing the midgets."
In fairness to England, the U.S. also went out in the group stages this year, losing all four of its matches, including a 64--0 squeaker to South Africa. But America is a developing rugby nation, likely to improve. "The U.S. will be much better in 20 years' time," said an Englishman in his 20s on a postgame train from Twickenham, urging an American to look on the bright side. "And now you have a sport that isn't rubbish to watch." After a moment of reflection he said, "It's not the rugby that makes your country a laughingstock. It's the guns."
As for England, they will always have the memory of 2003, when Jonny Wilkinson's late kick in Sydney won them the World Cup, making Wilko the beau ideal of the English sportsman or—in the words of one English friend—"what David Beckham was supposed to have been."
In rugby you're never far from a withering reference to soccer. When Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg appeared to dive in the hope of being awarded a penalty in an early-round match against South Africa at St. James' Park—usually the home of Newcastle United of the Barclays Premier League—Welsh referee Nigel Owens dressed him down in public. "If you want to dive like that again," Owens said, in comments picked up by a microphone, "come back here in two weeks and play."
The rugby referee is God, or at the very least, Dad. In the 38th minute of the Scotland-Australia quarterfinal, during a rare break in play, one Scotland player asked South African referee Craig Joubert for permission to tie his own boot. "Do it quickly, yeah," Joubert sighed.
The referee is seldom criticized, even when he gets things terribly wrong, as Joubert would do at the end of that match. Under a gunmetal sky, in a curtain of rain, Scotland lost on a last-second penalty kick that Joubert mistakenly awarded. "He's refereeing in front of millions of people, so I understand," Scotland back-row David Denton said afterward. "But it's affecting us for the rest of our lives, and affecting a nation."
While rugby's code forbids acknowledgment of physical pain—"We're unbreakable," said Bravehearts captain Greig Laidlaw—the same is not true of emotional turmoil. Denton, Scotland's 6'5" loose forward, met his family immediately after the loss to Australia, and the tears were copious. "We could have filled a bathtub," he said, a shiner starting to form beneath his left eye.
Scotland—and every other team in the tournament—aspires to express its national values through rugby. "There's so much humility to them," coach Vern Cotter said of his team. "There's no egos in the squad," said Denton. Given one last chance to blame the referee for his team's loss, he said only, "In this case, fortune didn't favor the brave."
These verities—of courage, respect, humility and perseverance—were impossible to ignore, even when overshadowed by, say, that man in the star-spangled bikini, cheering on the Eagles in Leeds.
When Wales, depleted by the countless injuries they refused to acknowledge, also succumbed late to favored South Africa in another quarterfinal at Twickenham, Gareth Thomas, once Wales's captain and now a television analyst, said of the squad, "What they've done in this World Cup has highlighted how three million people live their lives."
With that in mind, many English fans suddenly became Scottish or Welsh, pairing England shirts with tartan tams or dragon hats. And it wasn't only the English. Rory Steinle was wearing a Wales jersey while standing outside the White Swan pub, overlooking the River Thames, on a gorgeous matchday Saturday in Twickenham. He's Australian, he said, from Sydney, but his father is Welsh and his mother is Scottish. Steinle also brought "a new Australia jersey that fits me better," he said, plucking at his Wales shirt, which was from the 2011 World Cup. "I'm expanding."
A lower-division rugby player in Sydney, Steinle has broken both hands, both shoulders, a leg and several ribs playing rugby. Forty-eight hours earlier his girlfriend, Chelsea Hancock, fell near the pinnacle of a mountain in Scotland and broke her leg. "She's back in the hotel room with her leg in the air," said Steinle, who could empathize. "The first year we dated, I was in hospital 10 times."
He said all of this in a matter-of-fact manner. If the 31-year-old could still shrug his shoulders, no doubt he would have. "It's rugby," he said, a phrase that came up frequently, as when he said by way of parting, "When you see some 200-pound piece rush up to the referee to say, 'I'm sorry about that penalty, sir, I didn't mean it'—that's rugby."
And then he was on his way, with thousands of other fans, making the 15-minute walk to Twickenham Stadium, past The William Webb Ellis and the world-famous Cabbage Patch, in front of which Springbok fans were playing street rugby, replete with tackles. They passed food trucks and front gardens, where vendors sold a dizzying variety of rugby-nation foods—Cornish pasties, bangers and mash, Braai, biltong, boerwors and burgers.
Inside Twickers, players pulled at one another by the back of their shorts, revealing miles of what Americans call plumber's crack and Brits call builder's bum. Beyond these superficial differences of a common language, the world was otherwise in harmony. The uprights looked like tuning forks, and everyone thrummed at the same frequency. The World in Union was the slogan of this World Cup, a play on words referring not just to international brotherhood but to the game of rugby union, as distinct from rugby league. The differences are hardly worth going into, except to quote Tom David, the former Wales international, who once said, "The main difference between playing league and union is now I get my hangovers on Monday instead of Sunday."
When Scotland was eliminated from the World Cup, its magnificently bearded flanker, Josh Strauss, pronounced himself "gutted" but said he would nevertheless "go out with the boys and have a little fun—I think everyone deserves it."
Like Strauss, aka The Beard That's Feared, few were eager to leave the World Cup, with its pubs and pies and camaraderie, its lineouts and knock-ons and kickoffs.
On his final night in London, one spectator woke in the predawn darkness—le reveil mortel often visits him in hotel rooms in the middle of the night—and turned on the TV. The former All Blacks star Ali Williams was being interviewed on a replay of the BBC show Extra Time. Asked if anger was a motivation for playing international rugby, Williams suggested it was something like the opposite. "To put yourself in pain is probably [how] I'd put it," he said, describing rugby as a joyful willingness—an eagerness—to open oneself to the certainty of physical peril.
"I'll be vulnerable here to injury; I'm going to just go through it," Williams said of his mind-set, and this open invitation to injury, in the service of something larger than oneself—well, that's rugby. "I loved it," he said. "[I] miss it." Anyone who attended the World Cup, and was suddenly headed home, felt exactly the same way.